Ah, what an exciting time to be alive!
The early ‘80s in New York City: an easy era to romanticize, but let’s succumb to the temptation anyway. Jean-Michel Basquiat was just 19 years old when Downtown 81 was filmed—he hadn’t even met Andy Warhol, his fateful meeting with whom lay one year in the future. He entered the art scene through the backdoor, as it were, earning notoriety in the waning days of the 1970s with his graffiti, signed under the name SAMO (“Same Old Shit”) before abandoning street art and making the acquaintance of underground mainstay Glenn O’Brien. Frequent appearances on O’Brien’s public-access TV Party placed him near the epicenter of the city’s post-punk, polyglot music scene. Downtown 81 was written and produced by O’Brien, with photographer Edo Bertoglio directing and influential visual artist Maripol helping out as co-producer. Bertoglio had never directed a movie before (and wouldn’t direct again until 2005’s Face Addict), and O’Brien and Maripol could hardly qualify as film veterans either.
And yet, the film has retained a quality of magnetic mystery throughout the years since its premiere, perhaps due in part to the fact that a rights dispute kept the film out of the public eye for the better part of two decades. The movie itself has an almost impossible pedigree, featuring not merely the only film performance by the doomed Basquiat (who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27), but appearances by a who’s-who of contemporaneous art-world and music-world superstars. Debbie Harry has a cameo as a bag lady. Arto Lindsay and his band DNA show up, as do fellow graffiti pioneers Fab Five Freddie and Lee Quinones. Is it any surprise, then, that the soundtrack presents such an embarrassment of riches?
Musically, early ‘80s New York was one of the most exciting places to be. Sure, the initial wave of punk was beginning to recede, but the New York punk scene had always been more of an art scene than a music scene. Punk was at this time being reborn across the country in desolate urban environments such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and remade far harder than it had ever been in New York. But the original punks were still around, and they were beginning to branch out in some pretty strange directions. For example: in 1980 the Talking Heads released Remain in Light, a groove-based, rhythm-heavy album that seemed on first glance to be as far removed from punk as possible, owing much more to Fela Kuti and Can than the Ramones. That same year, the Heads’ David Byrne and Remain in Light’s producer Brian Eno collaborated on My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, a strange, almost unclassifiable sound collage built of found samples and African inferences (such as the title, nicked from Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s book of the same name). But it wasn’t just world music that was influencing the “new wave”, but strange new music that was being born just down the block. Hip-hop grew out of parallel streams at the same time as new / no wave and early house music. There was crossover, and it was this crossover that created the most interesting kinds of frisson.
It wasn’t just the specific act of sampling that created the cultural cross-pollination, although that was certainly a very overt expression of a surpassingly subtle and widespread phenomenon. More importantly, the musicians active in the early ‘80s scene were all pulling from disparate styles to create new forms out of previously unimaginable sounds, “sampling” not merely specific records but entire styles. Blondie released one of the very first hip-hop tracks to reach a national audience in 1981, “Rapture”, whose video included appearances from Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Rapture” itself was also directly inspired by Chic’s “Good Times”, a disco staple that had also formed the basis of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight”.
Accordingly, Downtown 81 features Rammellzee & K Rob’s “Beat Bop”, an influential early hip-hop track that you might remember from the 1983 film Style Wars. Rammellzee wasn’t just an early MC, he was also one hip-hop’s graffiti pioneers, along with the aforementioned Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quinones. The work of these early artists gained attention from the art world in New York and Europe at about the time hip-hop culture in general was crawling out of the Bronx. It wasn’t hard to draw a line directly from the appropriation of pop art in the 1960s straight through to graffiti culture as a kind of public installation art in the early ‘80s. From this perspective, as odd as it may be to think of Warhol as a trailblazer in the realm of hip-hop, the story of these years is the story of many disparate parties waking up to the postmodern possibilities of contemporary pop music pretty much simultaneously. From these humble roots emerged the modern strains of hip-hop, house, “art rock”, and electro. Just a few years later the scene would act as a proving ground for artists as diverse as Madonna and Sonic Youth.
And Downtown 81 represents, more or less, Ground Zero. Basquiat’s own band, Gray, is represented with two rare recordings, “Drum Mode” and “So Far So Real”. The tracks are interesting, if slight—atmospheric noodlings that depend as much on inference for their effect as any actual content. As a musician, he made a great painter, I’ll say that much. But how to complain with Kid Creole & the Coconuts also represented with two tracks, “K Pasa-Pop I” and “Mr. Softee”? These songs, especially the latter, point to yet another dimension of cultural crossover: the presence of Latin rhythms which would reach their fullest expression in the burgeoning house music scene a few years later. (For what it’s worth, there’s also a bit of second-wave ska here as well, on “Mr. Softee”.)
Suicide remain the unsung heroes of the New York punk scene, having contributed significantly to the evolution of electronic music, in the forms of techno and industrial. “Cheree” is representative of their sound, in addition to being a pretty awesome track in its own right, all shuffling 808 salsa beats and waves of understated synthesizer noises, combined to disturbing drunk-tank effect. Arto Lindsay’s DNA pop up with two tracks of their own, and they’re still pretty weird even after twenty-five years or so, sounding like nothing so much as a herd of elk running over the band’s instruments. “Blonde Redhead” is one of the tracks present, and as such is notable for having inspired the band of the same name.
Some of it has aged better than others—I can only take so much Lydia Lunch, you know? But even though some of the tracks may seem like sonic dead-ends, they’re still fertile dead-ends, pointing the way towards fruitful paths even when execution falls short of expectation. And when it does work, you can practically hear the gears of history moving into place. How else to explain the Jesus & Mary Chain without Tuxedomoon’s “Desire” presenting the missing piece of the puzzle? And of course, Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” is present, one of the most famously-sampled tracks of all time. I’ve got it on probably half-a-dozen other compilations, but it still sounds great.
Anyone wanting to understand this crucial era in modern music need look no further for a great sampler of the artists and genres involved. If you’ve already got Soul Jazz’s fantastic New York Noise series, which covers the same territory, there’s some overlap, but not a lot. The soundtrack gains extra potency for the fact that it’s not simply an impeccably-compiled anthology, but an actual cultural artifact from the days when artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat were openly mixing high forms and low to create something new altogether. While Basquiat may not have lived to see the promise of his early career realized, the same cannot be said for the music on this disc: it grew up and conquered the whole world, in one way or another.